“Were the hotels you stayed at in Paris this luxurious, Ms. Sierra?” Dr. Hoffman asked. Sierra looked out at the glowing towers of night-time Shanghai. Dr. Hoffman, who was right beside her, pointed at something. “That’s the complex where they had the 2108 Summer Olympics! I knew I recognized it!”
“That’s interesting,” Sierra said, distantly.
“And there’s the Shanghai Tower,” she said, referring to a twisty-looking building.
“The skyline looks nice,” Sierra observed. “This hotel is very nice. I suppose it makes sense that President Utomo would request the finest. But for us? I barely did anything…”
“Think of it as a recompense for being flown halfway across the world with no warning, I suppose. What a strange turn of events this past day has been. Anyway, we’re sharing a room...don’t they know what happens when maids are left to plot together?”
Sierra knew why she didn’t have her own room. Putting a gun to her head had waived that privilege.
“It’s beyond belief that everything happened so quickly.”
“That’s the power the president currently wields in her own domain. Will it last, should the great external threat dissipate?”
Sierra couldn’t maintain the veneer any longer. She’d been riding the adrenaline, going to heroic lengths to not think too hard about any of what had happened.
“The great external threat won’t...dissipate…” Sierra looked across the city, no doubt one of the largest in the world. If what the Council had said was correct, it had another urban infrastructure underneath it, perhaps already in use. And it would all be destroyed.
“The Federation...the Council...you must have seen it. They hate us, Doctor.”
“Not all of them, from what I saw.”
“It’s so...strange,” Sierra said, still looking out the window. “They were heroes on my home planet. We were in the midst a major climate crisis when we made first contact. In exchange for token subservience, Federation terraformers solved the environmental degradation, permanently. A level of technology my people had never seen. In school, I was taught to regard them as our saviors. We benefit from...miraculous inventions from across universes. But here…”
“Were they your heroes?”
“Not particularly. I came into conflict with parts of the whole on numerous occasions. Part of the job. And I know them uplifting my old home was a pragmatic choice, more than anything. Just like how they want to destroy us.”
“To think, they never used their tech to bother studying the changes. And control them, if they wanted,” Dr. Hoffman mused.
“Perhaps a portion of them want to do exactly that. But they are not the ones in charge.” Sierra was still looking at the doomed metropolis. “Dr. Hoffman.”
“I’m...glad I met you. You’ve done so much to help...but I must wonder, if you could have lived a full life, had I never landed here.”
“It was nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m still astounded by your willingness to take responsibility for an interdimensional empire’s foreign policy decisions.”
“I guess when you put it that way...it sounds a bit silly…I guess I’m really just full of myself…”
“You’re young, that’s all it is. Your place in the world is still uncertain enough that you can only make guesses.”
“My place in the world was supposed to be self-evident…” Sierra said, tugging on frills.
“So was mine. But university studies were exciting in a way that cleaning and cooking weren’t.”
“Was it difficult? Studying as a maid?”
“Extremely. It’s not that I was any less proficient with the subjects, no. In effect, every new person I met felt the need to ask me why I was doing this, why I couldn’t just be happy doing what I was conditioned to enjoy. And now they say we exist because of a war experiment...the FMF is going to have a field day.”
“If they choose to operate under the assumption that we’ll survive…”
“We’ll just have to, for the time being. And live our best lives.”
Sierra chuckled. “I did tell President Utomo something...it probably sounded pretty deluded…”
“I’m sure she’s heard worse.”
“I told her that I would fly for Earth if we were forced to defend ourselves.”
“Sounds to me like you care. And that you want to do whatever you can.”
“It could simply relate to my ego, once again…”
“Don’t count yourself out. You never know what could happen.”
“How much time do you think we have?” Sierra asked, abruptly. “Before they...y’know…”
“I...don’t know, Sierra.”
“I need to see Elaine again. So I can...say…” Sierra couldn’t finish the sentence. It looked like it was a cloudy night. Was it raining? No...Sierra was simply crying. “So I can say...g-goodbye…” She collapsed, bracing her arm on the window. The glass fogged where her breath hit it, pulsating at an uneven tempo. At some point, Dr. Hoffman had come up beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. Anything else was drowned out by the increasing volume of Sierra’s wails.
“W-we n-never got to finish...our trip…”
Eventually, Sierra quieted down. Dr. Hoffman shared the silence with her.
“They...robbed me of...the closest thing I had to happiness…” Sierra bowed her head, wiping the tears from her face. “I...will find their flagship...and fly into the bridge. I’ll die on impact, and my corpse...will force the changes onto everyone aboard. They will spread it...to every other ship in orbit...let’s see them kill us then…” Sierra straightened, shaking slightly. I wonder...will they all become maids if I’m the one to infect them? That would be...appropriate…” Sierra’s lips curled into a hollow smile. “Elaine won’t...have to worry about losing me...she’ll be able to find someone, anyone, just like me among every maid in the multiverse…” Sierra fell back onto the bed. “No...that won’t work. They’ll blow me up as soon as I take off…” Her fist curled at the thought. “Dammit!”
“That might give us some time, actually…” Dr. Hoffman mused. “Sorry. I can leave you alone…well, not completely, per se, but I can give you space if you like. It’s good to process these emotions when you can.”
“No...go ahead…” Sierra murmured.
“It’s important to remember that they are terrified of us. They’re imaginative enough to constantly be coming up with scenarios like the one you just provided. Sure, they say they can stop any of our retaliatory measures...but are they ready to risk it? That’s probably why the WG never dialed back the infectivity. It’s our greatest weapon.”
“But they seem determined to end it now, Doctor…”
“First of all, when we’re out of the office, you can simply call me Ada.”
“But I have...immense respect for your station.”
“Please, I insist.”
“Very well, Dr. Ada.”
Ada Hoffman snorted.
“Well I can’t call you Ms. Ada!”
“Just Ada is fine. Outside of my office, we’re at the same level. Anyway, as I was saying...not all of them are as determined to end it as you think, remember? The opposition exists, and I’d say the president did a pretty good job of making sure they heard her.”
“I can’t stand the uncertainty….”
“That’s normal. I can’t stand it either.”
Sierra wiped her eyes one more time.
“I suppose I should get some sleep.”
“Might as well,” Ada Hoffman replied. “Might be a long time before we have beds this comfortable again.”
“Will we...still be here in the morning?” Sierra wondered aloud.
“I don’t see why not. We don’t know that they were telling the truth when they said they’d already voted. There’s more than either of us can comprehend that goes into committing genocide. Things that would take time, I’d think. For all we know, it could be years! So why don’t we try to enjoy the time we have left?”
“I suppose you are right, Ada.”
“Thank you, Sierra. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Before long, they were back in the Bundeshalle. A trip that had taken her halfway across the world in only two days -- were these trips something the president did often?
“Hey there, Sierra,” Amelie waved, as the maid stepped out of the elevator. “I told Elaine you’re supposed to be back today, so she’s going to swing by. We heard what happened at the meeting. Don’t be too hard on yourself, you did a great job.” She failed to suppress a yawn, which she followed up with an apologetic look.
“You are here rather early, Ms. Amelie,” Sierra observed. “It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah. I’m here to babysit a new girl Paris dumped on us. I think this is the last place she should be…”
“No need to be rude, Ms. Amelie.
“I better just show you,” Amelie said. “Maid Chloeeeeee!” Sierra heard footsteps from above which grew louder, clicking along the stairs. A maid with long, wine-red hair soon emerged. The new arrival bowed to Amelie, but nearly choked when she saw Sierra.
“Well?” Amelie asked. “Aren’t you going to say hello?”
“H-hello, Ms. Stinson.” She was shivering, it looked like, as she gave another shaky bow. She looked awfully familiar…
“Good morning, Ms. Harlow,” Sierra said, with a slight bow of her own.
“Yeah. That’s right, they sent her here. Might as well get this over with, now that you’ve met.” Amelie’s wings fluttered absently as she shifted uneasily on her feet. “Do you have something to say to Sierra, Maid Chloe?” Amelie presided like a schoolteacher as she awaited Chloe Harlow’s response.
“I was once c-called Bennett…” she began. Sierra nodded at the information she already knew, but could not shake the surreality of the situation. “I’m...I’m….d-deeply sorry! For my treatment of you at...the m-meeting…” Chloe shuddered as she spoke, recalling past shame. Sierra could very much relate.
“I accept your apology, Ms. Chloe.” Sierra realized she should probably feel angry, and she did, but only somewhat. The person who was once called Bennett looked absolutely pathetic, as she tottered on two skinny legs.
She knew what the nascent maid was going through.
“How long will you be with us, Ms. Chloe?” Sierra asked.
“Until...they tell me t-to go somewhere else…” Chloe’s eyes were glued to the floor, making it difficult to read her face. But Sierra knew all too well that sort of answer, and couldn’t help but to feel some compassion for the former diplomat.
“We’ll get so much more cleaning done with the two of us!” Sierra said, mustering some enthusiasm. It was hard to say what good cleaning would do at the end of the world, but it would make a nice distraction.
“Why…” Chloe Harlow voiced, starting to tear up, “why would you be so nice to me…after what I did to you…”
“I don’t know,” Sierra admitted.
“You’ve got every right to be angry,” Amelie added, casting a glance towards Chloe. At that moment, the elevator to the left of Sierra opened abruptly. Morgan strolled out.
“Hiya Am! Sierra! And, uh...oh,” she said. Chloe gave another tentative bow towards Morgan. That exchange cemented Sierra’s feelings -- not even Morgan would bring her usual enthusiasm. Sierra felt sorry for her once-tormentor.
“Good morning, Ms. Morgan,” Sierra said.
“Oh! How was your trip?” she asked. Sierra tensed up involuntarily.
“Not as productive as I would’ve hoped, I’m afraid.”
“The president is going to give a speech...either today or tomorrow,” Amelie said. “About the negotiations, about the possibility of war, et cetera. Y’know, everyone’s favorite subjects. I think she might have some flattering things to say about you, Sierra.”
“Yeah, you were awesome!” Morgan added.
“I really wasn’t,” Sierra shook her head. “I made several missteps, and most of what I was prepared to say fell by the wayside.”
“Y’know, your self deprecation gets annoying after a while. I know maids place emphasis on their humility, but take some credit every now and then! The fact you were able to say anything around the 48 Assholes is impressive in itself!”
“I...thank you, Ms. Amelie…”
“Sorry if that sounded aggressive. Still early, and whatnot…”
Sierra got a text from Elaine, not long after she got back.
EC: got morning work today. Will be there ‘round 1500.
Sierra put her pocketholo away. She walked over to Chloe, who was sitting in the lobby, directionless.
“If you need something to do,” she began, “would you like to assist me in preparing breakfast?”
“No,” Chloe responded, not moving her gaze from the wall she was staring at. “Leave me in peace, Ms. Sierra.”
“I can’t believe you became a maid too, Ms. Harlow. What are your initial thoughts?” Sierra asked, not giving up on friendliness for the time being.
“They forced this on me. They took me to some sort of...place,” Chloe replied, concentrating. “They told me it was the proper recourse for my actions. Then, they gave me this name that you call me. But I know I’m not Chloe...my name is...by the emperor, what was it…” Chloe put her head in her hands, searching for a name that would not come. “I guess my name is Chloe….”
“It’s certainly not a bad name,” Sierra considered. “Though I can tell you what your old name was, if you’d like.”
“Why would you want to do that…” Chloe pushed a burgundy strand out of her eyes. Her Change, altered as it might have been, did good things for her hair, Sierra decided.
“I can also keep that information to myself, if you prefer.”
“No. Tell me my old name. So I can be...me? I...what am I…”
“You were called Bennett in your old life, Ms. Chloe.”
“Bennett? That doesn’t sound like me…”
“I thought the same thing when I heard my old name. It even made me a little uncomfortable. Are you the same way?”
“I’m nothing like you!” Chloe raised her voice, suddenly. “Sorry…no. Why am I apologizing? You did this. You made me like this! You humiliated me!”
“I did many things I regret…” Sierra said. “But I cannot change the past. I humiliated myself as well, Ms. Chloe. The contents of that meeting continue to haunt me.”
“Why?” Chloe snapped. “It didn’t ruin your life!”
“It may have ruined the lives of numerous people, more important than me. But I cannot know that for sure. Regardless, I’m sorry that you find yourself here in what may be the twilight of our existence, Ms. Chloe.”
“This is what we want. What my masters want. The Federation will cleanse those who defiled the honor of the emperor. I will be cleansed as well.”
“Did the Talerians leak the meeting to the Federation, Ms. Chloe?”
“Yes. They did. I served my purpose by drawing statements and actions out of you and your mistress that would discredit the people of this planet.”
Sierra took a moment to process that bombshell. Chloe gave her a look that was slightly detached from a sneer, a display of confused pride.
“You performed your function much more ably than I did, it seems,” Sierra nodded. “It is a shame your superiors deemed it necessary to punish you for it.”
“I outlived my usefulness. It was...only...natural, that I be sent to my death for…” Chloe shook her head. “I performed in a way that was unflattering to the Crown. It is natural that I receive this punishment for the greater good of my people.”
Sierra wasn’t sure how to follow that up. It would be easy enough to dislodge Chloe’s faith in the Talerian government if she continued on, but…
“You seem to have...faith in your nation, Ms. Chloe.” The former diplomat gave Sierra what could only be described as an enigmatic look.
“It is what keeps me going past this point of no return, Ms. Sierra.”
“I...will make breakfast now, if you care to join me,” Sierra said, turning towards the cafeteria, and the kitchen beyond. Chloe remained motionless, but not for long.
“Wait! I will...work with you, if only to get my mind off things…”
Sierra looked over her available ingredients, but some were rather sparse.
“I fear we may have to restock.” She turned around to see Chloe, who was examining a cutting board.
“I’ve never...cooked before,” She admitted.
“I would be happy to teach you some of what I’ve learned, but first we must do some shopping,” Sierra said.
“I doubt they will let me leave this place,” Chloe said, as her eyes passed over more kitchen implements. That gave Sierra a moment of pause.
“I...don’t know if I can leave either. I fear I may have become something of a recognizable face…” Sierra shuddered. Both maids turned however, when a third voice entered the conversation.
“You two cooking something? Make enough for me, will you?” Amelie cracked a smile. “Was wondering where you got off to…” she said, to Chloe in particular.
“We want to prepare breakfast, but we’re out of some things. Eggs and flour, in particular.”
“People downstairs haven’t been doing their jobs as usual,” Amelie sighed. “And you...want to go to the store to get these things, I take it?”
“Um...yes. That is what I want. I want to try, if nothing else. I can’t...hide here forever, Ms. Amelie.”
“Well...Ms. Luxe didn’t want you going out, but she’s not here, is she?” Amelie smiled conspiratorially. “Sooo...tell ya what. I'll come with you. If we get swarmed by reporters, nosy people, whatever...we can come back. But what will we do with her…” she said, gesturing at the once-Talerian.
“I believe she should accompany us,” Sierra said.
“That’s a terrible idea,” Amelie shook her head. “But I also don’t really care at this point, so...yeah. Come along, Chloe. Wander off and you won’t get very far.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she nodded. “I will not try to escape…”
They moved into the lobby, towards the elevators.
“Yo, Morgan! We’re going shopping! Hold down the fort ‘til we get back!” Amelie bellowed.
“Kaaaaaaaay!” a distant voice replied.
They passed the sliding doors into the city. It was the first time Sierra had gone outside on foot, since the vacation.
“She’s not permitted to answer any questions!” Amelie yelled, attempting to disperse the crowd of journalists and reporters. It was a smaller crowd than what it had been a few days ago. Sierra kept her head down, while Chloe looked around in wonder, struck by the same culture shock Sierra had experienced before. “Just ignore these good folks,” Amelie said, referring to the small group of newswomen who’d peeled off to follow them. “Know anywhere close?”
“I do, Ms. Amelie. There.”
“I don’t know about you, Sierra, but I’m really not in the market for a new holo. Oh, wait. You mean...yeah, forgot that was there.” They proceeded towards an electronics store, but diverted at the last moment, opting for an escalator heading underground. The passage opened up into a sparsely populated supermarket. “Let’s not take too long...I’m not supposed to be doing this.” Sierra stopped.
“What am I doing...of course you’re not. Let’s go home before anything bad happens…”
“Nah,” Amelie said. “Don’t worry about it. I know what I’ll say if I get caught. It’s the opposite of a big deal. Now, shall we get what we came for?”
Sierra wasn’t sure if the Council meeting had been made public. Probably not, she had to figure. But even so, the atmosphere was uneasy at best. Whether because of continued Federation posturing or something else Sierra didn’t know about yet, there was a slight tension in the air.
“Is that the coat rack girl?” a voice said.
“She’s nothing you need to worry about,” Amelie said, bristling. “I’d encourage you to move along.”
“Got any more to say about this apparent hellhole we live in, maid?” The stranger moved closer, defiant.
“This is your last warning, citizen.”
“I will say some things, if it puts your mind at ease.”
“Sierra, no. Don’t buy into this asshole. I’m about to send her packing anyway.” Amelie turned back to look at the maid, who was approaching the hostile shopper. It was too late however, as the stranger backed off.
“I was just leaving, anyway,” she said, heading towards the escalator. Chloe watched the entire exchange with a look of mild amusement, as Sierra sighed in relief.
“Are you okay?” Amelie asked her.
“I was worried about a confrontation.”
“You don’t have to be. It doesn’t matter that much. I was prepared to do any number of things…” Amalie chuckled, a bit unexpectedly.
“Our ingredients are t-this way, Ms. Amelie…”
The rest of the shopping trip was blessedly uneventful. While the cashier seemed to recognize Sierra, she didn’t say anything.
“Let’s get out of here,” Amelie said. They left the same way they came in, and traveled the few blocks back to the tower. “This place was unrecognizable after the war, so I hear,” Amelie mumbled. “The big government hall they made looked different from anything else in the old city. It was supposed to symbolize the new era, moving on from the past, whatever. I wonder how much time it took to build...and how much time it’ll take when…sorry. Let’s keep going. You still with us, Chloe?”
“We’re here, so let’s go back up,” Amelie gestured at the door. They evaded some of the reporters still waiting for them, and made their way to the elevator.
Sierra carried the groceries to the kitchen, with Chloe in tow. After putting everything in the proper place, however, she wandered back into the lobby. Her fellow maid waited behind.
“What’s up?” Amelie asked. “Did we forget something?”
“Please pardon my bluntness, Ms. Amelie. You’re acting a bit strange.”
“Stop worrying so much, Sierra. This isn’t anything important.”
“This is what I’m talking about.”
“I was prepared to never have kids. I always knew the possibility was there, but…” Amelie raised a display, flipping aimlessly through channels. “I never thought the end would come in my lifetime. Sorry. I really tried to put on a front for you, but...it’s been weighing on me. And I mean, that only makes sense, right?”
“I feel nothing but terror at the thought, Ms. Amelie. For a few wonderful moments, life was as good as it would be. I knew I’d be happy here, and I knew my days of smuggling were finally over. But things...are rarely as they seem. I would share my insecurities with you, so please feel comfortable with doing the same, if that is what you wish.” Sierra awaited a response for a few moments, before adding, “I feel I can handle it, whatever you decide.”
“A good friend of mine, you never met her, had a daughter just last year. She was overjoyed, and I know she’d be a good mother. Even now, she keeps telling me these plans they have for their little one, but…”
“I’m so sorry. I can’t begin to imagine.”
“Don’t even try. I can’t imagine how she and her wife are going to feel when it becomes clear.” Amelie turned off the display. “I wonder how hard it would be? We should just throw corpses from their inevitable bombings at their ships until one of them reaches the right place. Give the universe...or multiverse, I suppose, when we figure out that tech, something to really be afraid of. I wonder how the changes would affect nonhuman sapients?”
“Good question. What an ending it would be if the Federation destroyed us, but we became the Federation....but revanchist fantasies will only take us so far…”
“Even so,” Amelie chuckled. “Can you imagine the Council just...all of a sudden, they’re dressed like you, and trying to remember what they were doing? Do you think everyone else on their planets would become maids, or d’you think they’d get the normal run? They’d all just be ‘hey, this ain’t so bad…’”
“I had the same question.”
“I guess if what the 48 said was true, then the transformations spread from maids would not be locked, or else we’d have like sixty percent of the world being maids. ‘Course, our ‘great victory’ in the war is a big part of the reason we’re in the position we’re in now, huh…”
“I suppose it is. But we are not to blame for the actions of our predecessors. Even I can figure that out,” Sierra said. “I will go and see to our breakfast. I shudder to think what Chloe may have done in my absence.” It seemed a tactical choice to spare Amelie from the information the Talerian had disclosed to her, Sierra decided. Still, the uniformed woman gave her an uneasy look.
“Gotta wonder how responsible she is for our little predicament.”
“Try to give her the benefit of the doubt, Ms. Amelie. Keep in mind that she was cast aside by her old masters.”
“Can’t really blame ‘em. But I won’t force you to be mean to her, if you feel you’re above it.”
“Shall we get started, Ms. Chloe?” Sierra asked. The red-haired girl was lounging, and not doing much otherwise.
“I feel savory crepes are a good choice for this morning.” Sierra began assembling ingredients, while Chloe stood behind her, watching. “First we must make a proper batter…” Sierra felt Chloe’s breath suddenly, pushing off the back of her neck. Chloe produced a chef’s knife, and held it against Sierra’s neck. Her free arm was used to restrain her.
“It’s somewhat amusing, I must admit. In the supermarket...your own people have rejected you now. They won’t miss you.”
“You...would like to kill me, Ms. Chloe?” Sierra whispered to her captor.
“I h-have my orders,” she hissed in response.
“Please...don’t. I wanted...to see Elaine one more time…” Sierra observed as Chloe’s arm trembled but remained rigid.
“Who is Elaine? What about my family? My friends? Whom I was forced to leave behind?”
“Who...gave you the order, Ms. Chloe. I can’t...h-help but wonder...oh Ms. Elaine, please don’t find me dead…” Sierra closed her eyes as the tears welled.
“That doesn’t matter!” Chloe said. A warm droplet landed on Sierra’s shoulder. “Who...gave me the order…” The moments stretched into agonizing minutes as Chloe held position. Sierra felt the brush of cold steel, but the aggressor’s arm was trembling more than ever. Sierra’s eyes flit about, looking at various aspects of the kitchen but not really processing any of what she saw.
“Do you...know why I wasn’t mad at you, Ms. Chloe?”
“This should be good,” she replied through gritted teeth.
“I don’t blame you for our problems, Ms. Chloe. I think you were used by your higher ups, just...as I was...but your s-situation was worse. Because your old superiors...d-decided they were done with you, once you’d served your purpose…”
“What the...what are you trying to say? Answer...very...carefully…”
“You haven’t slit my throat...yet...may I ask what my death would achieve, Ms. Chloe? Then...if you still want to...I’m sorry, Ms. Elaine….”
“I don’t remember…” Chloe whispered. More tears landed on Sierra’s shoulder. “Why do...I need you dead...you’re the only one...who’s been nice to me…” The knife slowly withdrew from Sierra’s neck, as she was released. She immediately put some distance between the two of them. Chloe was staring at the knife with tears in her eyes, and muttering something. “I am a failure of a maid...I can’t even remember what I was told to do…”
Sierra was racked with sobs, as Chloe tentatively put the knife down.
“Did I…?’ Chloe asked, wiping her face.
“P-please leave the kitchen, Ms. Chloe. I...m-must prepare breakfast.”